Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Book Review: O. Leamann's and H. Nasr's History of Islamic Philosophy

Here is a book I reviewed for the Spring '05 issue of Philosophia Christi:

Hossein Nasr, Seyyed, and Leaman, Oliver, ed. History of Islamic Philosophy (Routledge History of World Philosophies) London and New York: Routledge 2001

Review by Robert Llizo

Scholars and students familiar with Oliver Leaman’s work on medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy will be pleased with this edited collection of essays on the subject of Islamic philosophy. Co-edited with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, it offers a breathtaking overview of the history of Islamic philosophy with detailed discussions by leading scholars in the field concerning the various movements that have given it shape, from its Qur’anic inspiration to the diversity of contemporary expressions in the modern world.

Before a comprehensive discussion about Islamic philosophy can be undertaken with any amount of fruitfulness, we must arrive at an understanding of what, exactly, is meant by Islamic philosophy. The two opening essays by the editors, Nasr and Leaman, attempt to do just that

Oliver Leaman’ introductory essay points out the difficulty of identifying Islamic philosophy. It cannot be limited to philosophy written in Arabic and produced in Arabic lands, since “many of our thinkers did not write in Arabic, and many of them were not Arabs.” (p. 1) Nor, indeed, were some of them Islamic, since some Christians and Jews worked within the style of Islamic philosophy. Some philosophical work is included in these essays that have no bearing on religious belief, such as works on logic and grammar. (pp. 1-2) As Leaman shows, “It is possible to derive some religious implications from such work, if one tries very hard, but not usually very fruitfully.” (p. 2)

On the other hand, some works included are not “clearly philosophy,” recounting different schools of theological discourse. Since theology is foundational to the development of Islamic philosophy, this makes sense. But we are left with the same question: What, exactly, is so Islamic about Islamic philosophy? One way to answer this question is by defining it as philosophy produced within the context of Islamic society and culture.

But there is another side to this. Since theology makes up a rather substantial part of the philosophical experience in this Islamic context, such philosophy will have to take into account Qur’anic dogma. For instance, an Islamic philosopher cannot very well adopt the identical view of the origin of the universe as Aristotle, since the Qur’an clearly teaches that the universe has a clearly defined beginning and end. Thus, “(m)any Islamic philosophers produced modifications of the Aristotelian theory which made it compatible, or apparently compatible, with their understanding of the Qur’an, while others criticized the certainty which philosophers applied to Aristotle’s theory.” (pp.8-9)

This leads to another key question Leamann poses in this first of a long series of essays: “How creative were the Islamic philosophers?” (p. 9) While they did not work from any sort of tabula rasa, they were very creative in that they carried the concepts and ideas of their Greek intellectual forebears “to their fullest extent.” (p. 9) This underscores a major current that runs through all these essays by leading scholars in the field-that Islamic philosophy is not a static phenomenon, merely parroting classical schools of thought, but has in fact shown a remarkable ability to come up with original questions and answers to tough philosophical problems. This is the subject of the second introductory essay, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Nasr’s essay deals directly with the two major “embodiments” of Islamic philosophy: the Persian (and adjacent areas from Iraq to India), and the Arabic, where “philosophy was to have a shorter intellectual life as an independent perspective than in Persia”, due to the triumph of Kallam on the one hand and of doctrinal Sufism on the other. (11-12) Here philosophy (or falsafah) had a marginal influence, given the dominance of kallam (or speculative theology) and usul al-fiqh (sources and foundations of Islamic jurisprudence). The Persian embodiment “had a continuous history going back to the earliest Islamic centuries and based not only on written texts but also on an oral tradition transmitted from master to disciple over numerous generations.” (11) Thus, Islamic philosophy, as a continuous historical enterprise, is primarily a Persian undertaking, having ceased for the most part in the Arab world west of Iraq. It is the Arabic branch, ironically, that gets much of the attention in the West because of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and he (along with the Persian Ibn Sinna, aka Avicenna) gets lumped into that amorphous category known as “Arabian philosophy.”

The development of the discipline “history of philosophy” in Germany in the nineteenth century revived interest in Islamic philosophy, but only as a philological and historical study, not a philosophical one (p. 13). Three generations of Islamic scholars have learned much of their philosophy from these western sources, producing works on Islamic philosophy which purport to be “from the Islamic point of view but in reality reflect works of western scholars which they try to accommodate to their own situation.” (p. 13) In this putative Islamic context, philosophy is taught in the manner of the German school. Here Nasr cites the example of Shah Waliullah of India, whose school in Delhi still uses T.J. De Boer’s History of the Islamic Peoples, a work which claims that Islamic philosophy came to an end after Averroes (13). It is clear that Nasr, like Leaman, sees Islamic philosophy as a living tradition, and the arrangement of essays into topical groupings that span 1300 years of Islamic history argues forcefully for this.

Within this scope readers will be especially fascinated with Islamic philosophy’s interaction with the Christian world. Of interest to readers of this journal (and especially to medievalists) will be John Marenbon’s essay “Medieval Christian and Jewish Europe,” where he touches upon the prominence of Islamic Aristotelians such as Ibn Sinna in western Christendom from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Siger of Brabant’s “Latin Averroism” is treated as a possibly “incorrect interpretation” of Averroes’ doctrine of the “threefold truth,” a “development” that “was determined not so much by his (Averroes’) philosophy as by the internal tensions of thought in the Christian universities” (p. 1007) Maimonides had a rather large, though not quite extensive, influence on St. Thomas Aquinas, which, according to Marenbon, was “far stronger, far less transformed by St. Thomas’ own thoughts.” (p. 1007) Also of interest is the essay by F.E. Peters on the Greek and Syriac background and modes of transmission of classical texts (though he does overstate the “direct, without break” transmission between the classical pagan era and the Islamic, with a passing thought to the Greek and Syriac Christian contributions). A section of essays titled “The Jewish philosophical tradition in the Islamic cultural world,” with essays on Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, Judah Ha Levi and Gersonides, details the Jewish contribution to Islamic philosophy. Section VII (Philosophy and its parts) has a collection of essays ranging from metaphysics, logic and epistemology to political philosophy and ethics, mostly dealing with medieval Islamic reflections on these subjects but continuing to engage masters and students in current day madrassas. Current trends in Islamic philosophy are dealt with, including its interaction with modern western philosophy (Kantianism, etc.) in Catherine Wilson’s essay “Modern Western Philosophy.”

Whether one is a specialist, a student or a missionary wishing to delve more deeply into the cultural and intellectual waters of the Islamic world for the purpose of ministering more effectively to Muslims, this big tome (1211 pages) is a good one-stop source on contemporary scholarship on Islamic philosophy. It includes a note on transliteration and style, helpful notes on Arabic characters and their pronunciation, end-notes at the end of each essay, two bibliographies by Oliver Leaman (one a helpful bibliographical essay, the other an extensive list of introductory texts), and name and subject indices. Professors Nasr and Leaman have done the scholarly community a great service in bringing together this fine collection of essays.

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